The impact of the rat park experiment
The infamous rat park experiment taught us so much about connection in addiction recovery. But how can we translate this to real terms, and just how important is social interaction for those of us recovering from addiction?
We at Recoverlution feel that social interaction and connection with like minded others is not only imperative to our wellbeing, but that it is essential to our ongoing recovery.
Life can often be out of our control. It can be unintentionally cruel and unjust in its nature. Life’s events can feel isolating.
How true is this when we sit back and think of all the hardships we have faced and overcome; knowing that life being life there will undoubtedly be more to come.
What the rat park taught us about connection & addiction
If you are familiar with the rat park experiment, you will understand just how important connection with others is. Not only is it vital our social wellbeing but also to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
So why is connection with like minded others so essential in helping us move forwards in our recovery? Well, we know that when we have a common understanding and truly want the best for each other, that we feel good about the people around us. But perhaps there is more to it than that. There is more.
Science and personal experience have taught us the importance of social connection in assisting a heathy recovery from addiction. When we are able to connect, play, have fun and create a family like environment (much like the rats were provided in the rat park), we are far less likely to want or need substances. Why would we? When we are enjoying life and living it to the max?
Like the rat park, addiction recovery groups encourage us to connect
The results of rat park experiment show us that socialisation plays a big role in our overall wellbeing and ability to enjoy life.
We not only have the American psychologist, Dr Bruce Alexander (who conducted the rat park experiment) to thank for recognising our need for social connection, but also the likes of 12 step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction support groups such as SMART Recovery.
One thing that all recovery support groups have in common is that they encourage those of us in recovery from addiction to come together, support, help and regularly connect with one another.
Let's look further into the aspect of social connection with regards to addiction.
The rats craved stimulation and socialisation
In the 1970s, Dr Alexander conducted a series of experiments on rats, which included the infamous rat park experiment. Rats, like us, are social creatures.
An initial experiment of keeping rats in an isolated ‘no frills’ cage with two water bottles, one laced with heroin or cocaine, the other not, led the rats to compulsively keep drinking from the drug laced water bottles.
The isolated, bored and lonely rats repeatedly chose the drugs over the healthy, pure water, and chose it to their detriment. The rats consumed the drugs to the point where they eventually overdosed and died.
You may be thinking that by involving two highly addictive substances, the “choice” factor is removed?. Surely, the rats will have developed a physical and psychological addiction to a drug that's easily accessible and unlimited, wouldn't anyone?
However, It is not as clear cut as that.
Further studies suggested that these poor animals, with no stimulation, no purpose, no comforts and no companions were doing more than just feeding a drug habit. The rats were opting out of life. Sound familiar?
Thankfully, Dr Alexander, also felt that this rat experiment fell short. Of course the rats were going to choose the drugs to cope with their “existence”. There was literally nothing else for them to do, other than to continually get high.
Socialisation stopped addiction in the rat park experiment
Dr Alexander was quite rightly concerned by the fact that the rats had zero stimulation in the first rat experiment. These social creatures were kept in a tiny single cage with no toys, no interaction and none of their social needs being met.
He wanted to further investigate this aspect which he felt was a massive contributing factor to their compulsive drug taking and their consequent demise. With the social factor in mind, the experiment known as “The Rat park” was born.
The rat park consisted of a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cages used in the first experiment. Added to the cage were toys, balls, wheels, plenty of tasty food and space allocated for mating and raising baby rats.
Once the cage was complete, Dr Alexander then added 20 rats, made up of both genders. Finally, a pure water bottle and a morphine laced water bottle were placed in the rat park cage.
Would the rats become addicted to the highly addictive opioid once again? Would they destroy themselves with the drug infused water?
Well, this time, the results couldn't have been more different....
The rats in the rat park chose life
The rats in the rat park experiment were far more interested in eating, playing, mating, fighting and socially interacting than they were in taking the drugs.
Even the rats who had previously been drinking the heroin water, left it alone when moved into the rat park. Now that says something.
Not only were the rats choosing social connection and interaction over getting high, they were choosing life. The morphine interfered with this and so they showed little or no interest in it.
And, yes, we are far more complex creatures than rats and we do have far more choices than your average rat used in experimental studies or kept in a laboratory.
Obviously, addiction isn't purely down to lack of social connection and stimulation, but it certainly doesn't help
Addiction was the solution to social disconnection
Let's now look at the rat park experiment and its relevance to us humans, something more relatable perhaps.
Many of us found a solution to what was missing within us in addiction.
Substances made us feel part of life. They made us feel more attractive, more charismatic, more relaxed, more witty, more confident, more social. They made us (in essence) feel more than we felt for ourselves.
The tragedy of addiction is that in the end, the very thing that ‘helped’ us through life, eventually took everything it gave, and more.
Most of us who sought recovery from addiction, did so because the pain of continuing as we were eventually became too much.
Many of us ended up isolated, broke, physically and mentally damaged. We ended up, through our addiction, existing and no longer living.
Despite the great cost, addiction stilled compelled us to engage in harmful substance use and behaviours. We had very little or no control over the damaging way of life we were living.
This takes me back to the first rat experiment...
So what is the answer?
When it comes to addiction, no one has all the answers. We can theorise all we like but as unique individuals we all have varying needs.
We are intended to be social
Just like the rats in the rat park experiment, us humans are intended to be social. We are capable of so many emotions, including compassion, empathy, anger, jealousy, sadness, joy, and love.
Why would we possess such capabilities and emotions if we were not meant to be social? As human beings we are designed to connect with each other (whether we like it or not)
Just like the rats in the rat park experiment, we feel a special connection with others who are like minded.
Connecting with other beings is one thing, but connecting with those who really understand us, holds an even greater meaning.
Connecting with another in addiction recovery offers an inexplicable comfort.
Alone, without connection, we are far more likely to end up as we were, before recovery (or even worse). Together, there is power in the unique connection and goal we share with each other.
Together, we can socialise, play, learn and interact. We are naturally drawn to others of a similar mindset, who have similar goals and have faced similar adversity’s.
There is a huge comfort in knowing we are not alone!
By walking the path of recovery together we can learn to trust and connect in a meaningful way, a healthy way. We can overcome whatever life throws at us (including its inevitable curve balls). There is so much to be said for connection in the way it can enrich our lives. Loneliness is optional.
Author - Sammi
- Bejerot, N. (1980). Addiction to pleasure: a biological and social-psychological theory of addiction. NIDA research monograph, 30, 246.
- Alexander, B. K., Beyerstein, B. L., Hadaway, P. F., & Coambs, R. B. (1981). Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 15(4), 571-576.